800 words

I’m sure this has come by me before, but I can’t unearth it. In any case, here’s the beginning of a piece (“On the 800-word myth”) by David Crystal on his blog, January 10:

Sunday Times correspondent rang up last week to ask what I thought about the claim made by Jean Gross (described as the new UK ‘communications czar’) that ‘the average teenager uses just 800 words in daily communication’. It was one of those waste-of-time interviews, where I spoke to the reporter for about 20 minutes, explaining how simplistic statements of that kind are rubbish, and what the linguistic realities are, and got one sentence in the report for my pains. Plus an ignoring of all the issues. The report was headed ‘Youngsters are using just 800 words in everyday speech’, as if this was a fact. I’m already receiving emails asking whether this is true, and I expect more as the week proceeds.

Crystal goes on to look at estimations of vocabulary size and vocabulary use — an evergreen topic on Language Log and other linguablogs. Of course, 800 is an absurdly small number.

Teenagers are often the butts of such reports. After all, everyone knows how linguistically deficient kids are.

Low marks to Gross for the preposterous claim and to the Sunday Times for passing it on (disregarding David Crystal’s information in favor of reproducing stereotypes). The press these days!

(A possible lead to the source of the 800 words figure: educational consultant Ruby Payne, who maintains that casual conversation between friends is usually limited to a vocabulary of 400 to 800 words and also that children of poverty are limited in the registers available to them. Where she gets the 400-800 word estimate, I have no idea.)

5 Responses to “800 words”

  1. arnoldzwicky Says:

    David Crystal has not been served well by the press. See this Language Log posting on one treatment of his book txtng.

  2. mae Says:

    I read that Na-Vi has 1000 words.

  3. Gary Says:

    The number goes back a long way—Ogden and Richards’ “Basic English” was limited to 850 “words”.

  4. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Gary: you have two situations here with claims about inventories of roughly 800 words on them, but I can’t see that there’s any connection between them. Ogden & Richards claimed that 850 words would suffice for writing a simplified form of English. Gross is claiming that some group of people actually use only 800 words in “daily communication”. I assume the similarity in the numbers is just an accident.

  5. Daniel Says:

    I examined the number of word types in a dialogue corpus, and it turns out that you could get by on 800 words easily.

    Another claim they made was that the teens’ top 20 words account for a third of the total. But that’s true for adults, as well as for the novel 1984. That’s just how the frequencies come down.


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